An expert's point of view on a current event.

How President Erdogan Mastered the Media

Turkey's once-feisty press has succumbed to an artful mix of bribery, muscle, and ideology.

GettyImages-460447226 cropped
GettyImages-460447226 cropped

This is the fourth in a series of reports adapted from the Legatum Institute’s “Beyond Propaganda” program.

This is the fourth in a series of reports adapted from the Legatum Institute’s “Beyond Propaganda” program.

The summer of 2013 saw widespread unrest in Turkey, starting with environmental protests and turning into a nationwide riot against the ruling party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Gezi Park protests, as they are colloquially known, were the biggest demonstration against the government in recent history, and were soon followed by corruption allegations over the Erdogan family’s cash hoardings and luxury houses. Foreign observers who followed the protests closely wondered if the government would survive. But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) not only survived, but dominated both the local and presidential elections in the following year — Erdogan won the presidency with a hefty 52 percent majority. How did he manage to pull this off? Part of the answer lies in his ability to skillfully use disinformation, propaganda, and the media to shape the narrative for the general public, co-opt elites, convince audiences of his competence, and intimidate the opposition.

Instead of addressing the criticisms of his government, Erdogan and his supporters went on the front foot, launching a relentless disinformation campaign that was impressive both for the sheer variety of the allegations and for the number of media outlets that supported it. In the campaign, AKP members and their friendly media elements purported to reveal the “real reasons” behind the Gezi protests. Their conspiracy theories included the usual suspects: traitors, coup-plotters, the CIA, Mossad, MI6, Europeans who envied Turkey’s economic success, foreign forces in collaboration with terrorist organizations, the “interest rate lobby,” and — not surprisingly — the Jewish lobby. One of Erdogan’s advisers even suggested that foreign powers were trying to kill Erdogan through telekinesis. Others claimed that the Gezi protests were the work of CNN, or the BBC, or Reuters, or the Serbian civil society organization Otpor. In a fake interview, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour “confessed” to starting the protests “for money.” The pro-government media claimed that protesters drank beer in a mosque where they had taken refuge from the police. The mosque’s imam denied that the incident ever happened; he soon ended up exiled in a village outside Istanbul. There were also lurid claims that protesters had group sex in the mosque; that prostitution and group sex were common at Gezi Park; and that dozens of half-naked men had attacked and urinated on a young head-scarfed woman with a baby. Although every single one of these incidents, dutifully fabricated by pro-government media and subsequently cited by AKP members, was proven false, the disinformation campaign served its purpose. Many AKP voters, to this day, believe the Gezi protests were a terrorist conspiracy against the government.

Needless to say, the mainstream media mostly ignored the evidence of corruption which came to light after audio recordings of Erdogan speaking with his son were posted online in 2014. How does Erdogan keep such strict control over the mainstream media? According to the U.S.-based human rights watchdog Freedom House, the AKP government has used every trick in the book to suppress the media’s role as a counter-check on governmental power.

One of the most effective of these techniques is co-opting the country’s powerful media owners. Holding companies sympathetic to the government receive billions of dollars in government contracts, often through bodies housed in the prime minister’s office. Companies that own media outlets critical of the government, on the other hand, have been targets of tax investigations or forced to pay large fines.

Erdogan and his government also target individual journalists. The president frequently issues public statements attacking journalists who write critical commentary — and journalists attacked by the president have frequently lost their jobs afterwards. At least 59 were fired or forced out in retaliation for their coverage of the Gezi protests. The December 2013 corruption scandal produced another string of firings of prominent columnists.

Where such methods are insufficient, Erdogan’s government is not above taking “legal” measures. “The National Security Organization has wiretapped journalists covering national security stories, using false names on the warrants in order to avoid judicial scrutiny,” according to a recent report by Freedom House. Dozens of journalists remain imprisoned under broadly defined anti-terrorism laws. And in defamation cases, as well, courts sympathetic to the government are happy to hand out convictions. In March 2015, a court sentenced two cartoonists to 11 months and 20 days in prison for insulting Erdogan, though it later changed the jail sentence to a fine. Neither do Erdogan or the government-friendly media outlets limit themselves to attacking Turkish journalists. Ivan Watson, a CNN correspondent, was publicly shamed following his brief detention by Turkish police while covering a story in Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square on the first anniversary of the Gezi protests. In 2014, Der Spiegel recalled their correspondent, Hasnain Kazim, from Turkey after he received “hundreds of death threats” following a critical report of the Soma mine disaster.

Controlling the traditional media has not always proved enough to silence the masses who oppose Erdogan and the AKP. As is the case globally, millennials in Turkey rely on social media as their main source of information. Some 92 percent of Turkey’s online population now use social media, the highest share in the world. In the first days of the Gezi protests, when the mainstream media failed to even mention, let alone report on, the protests calling for Erdogan’s resignation, social media became the critical means of communication. They used Twitter and Facebook to share information about how to survive during the protests and provided minute-by-minute updates on events all around the country. Photographs and videos of the protests were shared on Flickr, Tumblr, and video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. Thanks to the images and information posted instantly through smart phones, the protests were fairly well coordinated and succeeded in attracting the attention of the international media.

Not content to be left behind, the government decided to form its own “social media army” immediately after the Gezi protests. The party hired no fewer than 6,000 social media experts, hoping to coordinate a “response plan against online activists critical of Turkish officials.” During the Gezi protests, Erdogan had spoken of a “robot lobby,” which he accused of tarnishing Turkey’s international image. Within a year, the AKP had doubled its social media experts and now controls its own impressive Twitter-bot army numbering in the tens of thousands.

But despite the government’s strenuous efforts to shape the narrative on social media, outlets such as Twitter and YouTube returned to the center stage during the corruption scandals that engulfed Erdogan’s family and high-level AKP officials in 2013. The anonymous leakers who disseminated the incriminating recordings were believed to be followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. (Just two years earlier, the Gulenists had been one of the strongest supporters of the ruling party, and their support had been reciprocated at the highest level.) The Gulenists relied heavily on Twitter to leak the recordings, prompting an enraged Erdogan to vow that he would “wipe out” the micro-blogging network. Shortly after the scandal broke, Twitter and YouTube were banned in Turkey. The ban was subsequently overturned by the Constitutional Court, but that has not prevented the government from working hard to further restrict freedom of speech on the Internet. For example, the parliament has approved legislation that authorizes the government to block websites without prior judicial decree.

In addition to media intimidation, Erdogan has used religion to cement his power. While AKP officials usually claim that they do not impose their values on others, Turkey’s education system is becoming more religious by the day. Many public schools have been converted into religious “Imam Hatip” schools. These schools were first established solely to train an adequate number of well-informed, scholarly prayer leaders to serve in mosques, and only males were admitted because only males qualify for the vocation in Islam. In the 1970s, girls began to be admitted to these schools, though they could not serve as imams. By 2002 there were about 70,000 graduates of Imam Hatip schools. Today, the official number is close to a million, and over half of the students are female. Graduates of these schools have been favored with government-service positions unrelated to their vocational training, and mosques have become a natural venue for government propaganda.

In a country where 98 percent of the population is Muslim, religion is always an effective political tool. With his religious and oratorical training as an imam, religiosity is Erdogan’s natural weapon of choice. Safak Pavey, a legislator of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), once said, “Erdogan is winning because of the enormous strength of a religious ideology which controls the past and the future. For Erdogan, temporal power is only an accessory. He believes that he possesses divine power. His magic is his ability to convince voters that he is God’s deputy on earth.”

This assessment — striking as it is — is buttressed by statements made by AKP legislators themselves. “Trust me, touching our esteemed prime minister [Erdogan], I believe, is a prayer,” said an AKP legislator from Bursa Huseyin Sahin. An MP from Duzce, Fevai Arslan, called Erdogan “a leader who possesses all attributes of Allah.” AKP Aydin provincial director Ismail Hakki Eser said, “We are in love with our prime minister. [He] is like a second prophet for us.”

This religious aura has several strategic aims. It helps put Erdogan above rational criticism, corruption allegations, and censure caused by U-turns in policy. The strategy also has class appeal. Polls show that lower-income groups, who are generally more conservative with respect to Islam, and those without secondary education, are more likely to vote for the AKP, to believe that the country is on the right track, and to oppose the Gezi protests.

Another key element of Erdogan’s religious narrative is the idea of victimization, playing on the fact that political Islamists were treated with prejudice by the Kemalist army in the past. Somehow, after over 12 years in power, Erdogan still manages to convince his constituency that they are a victimized group and that he is the most victimized of all. This narrative trick is used over and over.

But while Erdogan finds it easy to play the religion card against rivals like the opposition CHP, using this particular weapon against his long-time ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gulen is akin to going against the laws of nature. When they parted company, Erdogan tried to portray Gulen and his followers as “bad Muslims.” But many AKP members respect Gulen as a religious scholar and leader, and suddenly had difficulty aligning themselves with Erdogan. A furious Erdogan began a clean-up operation in his own party, leaving only “anti-Gulenists” to run in the June 7 elections. Despite his efforts, the AKP failed, for the first time, to win an outright majority — its biggest setback in 13 years.

When media manipulation, intimidation, and the religious narrative fail, Erdogan is always ready to offer subsidies and other benefits to supporters: all perfectly legitimate as far as the letter of the law goes. Having neutralized the opposition with mass prosecutions, disinformation, seizure of assets, and deprivation of employment, the regime grants public bids to government-friendly businessmen and distributes free goods to people just before elections. By way of example, Tekin Geze, a resident of Tunceli who was unemployed and had not paid his electricity bills for six months, received a free refrigerator and a washing machine in 2009.

21st century autocrats like Erdogan are smarter and more agile than their predecessors. In order to avoid pressure from the international community and to push back against groups defending civil rights and democracy, they no longer murder or even imprison as much as they used to. Instead, they data-mine, manipulate information, control the traditional media, and inundate the social media with disinformation. Even the smallest autocrats have more means at their disposal to control their constituents than ever before in history.

In the photo, staff members of Zaman newspaper protest against a raid by counter-terror police in Istanbul on December 14, 2014. Turkish police launched a sweeping operation to arrest supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival, U.S.-exiled imam Fethullah Gulen, including a raid on the offices of the Zaman daily, which is close to the cleric.

Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Correction, Aug. 13, 2015: The sentence “The National Security Organization has wiretapped journalists covering national security stories, using false names on the warrants in order to avoid judicial scrutiny” is from a 2014 Freedom House report, “Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey.” A previous version of this article did not enclose this sentence within quotation marks or state that the words came from the report. 

Berivan Orucoglu is an award-winning Turkish journalist and a member of the Next Generation Leader program of the McCain Institute.

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